It came as nothing short of a shock when the King of Saudi Arabia issued a decree to allow women to vote in the municipal elections — and run for office for the first time ever. As an India-American Muslim woman, I was intrigued and followed the developments, assuming a new revolution would ensue. But the unfortunate reality was that it was neither the victory for women the Saudi government had hoped to depict, nor the triumphant milestone portrayed in much of the American media.
Despite the theoretical ability to vote and run for office, the barriers to actually doing so are formidable.
It's difficult to digest the mockery that has been made of women's rights in Saudi Arabia. Their basic, fundamental rights are denied, such as the right to drive a car, the right to make decisions, the right to stand on a street alone and the right to travel alone. The country's male guardianship system requires a woman to gain permission from a male guardian — who could be her father, husband or even a teenage son — for any number of life decisions and freedoms, from basic to critical.
A hollow gesture
Despite what, at face value, could appear to be a boon for women's rights in Saudi Arabia, for a number of reasons many Arab women are simply not interested in the opportunity to vote or run for office. What could be viewed as apathy on their part is actually probably closer to disregard, or distrust, of the government in general.
Aziza Youssef is one such example. Far from apathetic, Youssef — an activist in the fight for women's right to drive in Saudi Arabia — explained to NPR her choice to boycott the 2015 election. She said the move by King Abdullah was more of a public-relations ploy, an effort to appear more progressive to Western nations. Youssef, and women like her, are more concerned with rights such as driving, which would give them greater control over their day-to-day lives.
Muslim women — understandably — often feel oppressed, and many have learned to live with it in Saudi Arabia because of a sense of hopelessness. It is difficult, however, to blame a woman for her apathetic approach, mainly because she understands that the patriarchal society in which she lives requires her husband's permission to lift a single finger.
When the New YorkTimes put out a call early in 2016 for Saudi Arabian women to share their experiences under Sharia law by submitting them online, the response was staggering. Although many women expressed anguish over various aspects of their lives being controlled by male guardians, some other stated that they felt content with the status quo. This lack of desire for basic human rights undoubtedly stems from a deep indoctrination from the patriarchal powers that be in Saudi Arabia. It is also quite possible that respondents expressing happiness with their lot were coerced by male guardians to write such sentiments.
In any case, it is a farce to market, let alone to celebrate, the idea of the late King Abdullah allowing women the right to vote and run in an election. The newfound right can hardly be defined as such when one examines the realities of the situation for those women who sought to exercise it. Despite the theoretical ability to vote and run for office, the barriers to actually doing so are formidable.
For example, as with anything a woman wishes to do under Sharia law, the issue of male guardianship arises. As is the case in many other aspects of her life, a woman must have her male guardian's permission to vote or become a candidate for office. In addition, voter-registration centres are segregated by sex, with only one-third of them designated for women in the 2015 elections, according to Human Rights Watch (HRW). Saudi Arabian women reportedly told HRW that the centres for women were difficult to find or far from their homes, posing another issue, as women are not permitted to drive.
US support of Saudi Arabia through economic means, trade and immigration sends a message that subjugating women is acceptable as long as there is financial gain to be realised.
Proving identity and residency represented yet another roadblock for Saudi Arabian women wishing to vote or run for office. While women there are now permitted to possess ID cards, a large number don't have them, according to HRW — and because men typically own the properties and have only their names on utility bills, women have a difficult time providing other accepted documentation. For women who are single, divorced or widowed, the hurdles are even higher. When all was said and done, 130,000 women were registered to vote, compared with 1.36 million men, according to NPR.
For the women able to establish themselves as candidates — 14% of more than 6,900 total candidates running for office — the uphill battle remained steep. With men comprising the vast majority of the electorate, sex-segregation rules for campaigning had an adverse effect on women, as did the high cost of campaigning.
After turnout of fewer than half of registered voters, female candidates won 20 seats out of more than 2000 municipal seats.
While the election may have felt momentous for some Saudi women, others viewed it as a hollow gesture. It was merely a tactic to appease the country's biggest ally, the United States. America's support of such a country is a straight contradiction of the basic rights written in the US Constitution — the rights to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.
How can the land of the free and the home of the brave — a country that speaks of freedom and opportunity — support a country that gives barely any rights to women, along with beheading individuals as punishment? Saudi Arabia's wealth of oil is enough to have America dance to its cacophonic tune. The Kingdom of Saudi Arabia reached its highest toll of beheadings in the last decade, with 157 executions in 2015 — not to mention the 192 executions in 1992, with a majority of cases dealing with drug-related offenses.
Human rights, especially those in relation to women, should supersede any religious rules and theocracies or monarchies, such as Saudi Arabia and Iran.
In a country where the Sharia plague is in place, it sits as the foreboding patriarch in the Middle East, as well as in other countries, to plant its seed in every corner of the world. This Sharia seed seems to be taking root in the United States, places like Michigan and Texas.
Ignoring women's rights is a huge discredit to the mothers, sisters and wives in this world. US support of Saudi Arabia through economic means, trade and immigration sends a message to all the women and girls in America — that subjugating women is acceptable as long as there is financial gain to be realised. Only a real move toward alternative energy sources would effectively tear America from its poisonous dependence on Middle Eastern oil.
Islam must awaken, progress
In addition, a serious period of enlightenment is necessary — one that only Muslims can initiate — to counter the thoughts of men in a position of superiority over women under the burkha of Islam and Sharia law. Some sects of the religion have evolved, adopting "presentism" to initiate a peaceful environment so that all humans can live in harmony. Pope Francis has rocked the foundation of the Catholic Church — while also winning staggering popularity — by preaching tolerance, acceptance and adaptation to a changing world. Islam, too, needs such a revolution to sustain any sort of value in the world.
As for the dictatorship in the Islamic Republic of Iran, it is highly offensive that a country still exists that forces its religious views — requiring women to wear a hijab — on female athletes, such as Heena Sidhu. An Indian sport shooter, Sidhu withdrew from an October competition in Iran because she refused to wear a hijab, despite the call for all female athletes to be veiled.
Atrocities under Sharia law must be condemned
The decision is not so simple for Iranian women. Several women in the Iranian city of Isfahan were severely burned in acid attacks in 2015 for not being properly veiled.
In addition, a 2015 report by UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon stated that at least 160 children are serving time on Iran's death row. The constitution of Iran states that the country "has cleansed itself of the dust and impurities that accumulated during the past and purged itself of foreign ideological influences, returning to authentic intellectual standpoints and world-view of Islam." Why support a theocracy that denounces Western ideologies for its formation?
This Muslim woman will continue to [fight against Sharia]... until a fatwa is issued against me and my life is taken, and until I can write no more.
Human rights, especially those in relation to women, should supersede any religious rules and theocracies or monarchies, such as Saudi Arabia and Iran. Furthermore, the United Nations and the world arena should condemn such entities due to their religious impositions on their citizens and societies. Loosening traditional gender roles is essential in the basic reformations of both of these countries. Doing so would encourage a period of New-Age Islam, where its progression and evolution would be more in line with modern society.
One of the world's largest and most prosperous democracies, the United States is a secular country where individuals of all religious backgrounds are able to live freely. Its leaders must make a commitment to support only those territories that support women's fundamental rights and allow for a democratic perspective in their governments by keeping religion and state separate.
Every woman in Saudi Arabia and Iran who feels oppressed under the Sharia law should feel encouraged to find her self-confidence, respect herself and seek refuge in lands outside such dictatorships.
Any women who discredits Sharia law and speaks out against heinous dictatorships will undoubtedly incur some serious consequences. But it is time that every woman speaks against this injustice to shine a spotlight on the abominations the United States continues to support.
This Muslim woman will continue to do so, and fight for the truth, in spite of the consequences — until a fatwa is issued against me and my life is taken, and until I can write no more.